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Cursor's Fury, Page 47

Jim Butcher

  He finished, and the tent emptied as the camp stirred itself to battle. Araris finished the last lacing on the armor and banged hard on Septimus’s armored shoulder, then seized the Princeps helm from its stand and tossed it underhand to Septimus.

  “I’ll help ready the command position, “ Araris said. “See you there.”

  “Rari,” Septimus said. “Wait.”

  Araris paused, frowning back at the Princeps.

  “I need you to do something.”

  Araris smiled. “I’ll see to it. We’re sending the noncombatants out already.”

  “No,” Septimus said. He put a hand on Araris’s shoulder. “I need you to take her out of here yourself.”

  Araris stiffened. “What?”

  “I want you to take Isana and her sister out.”

  “My place is beside you.”

  Septimus hesitated for a moment, and glanced to the east with haunted eyes. Then he said, “No. Not tonight it isn’t.”

  Araris frowned. “Your Highness? Are you all right?”

  Septimus shook himself like a dog shedding water, and the uncertainty vanished from his expression. “Yes. But I think I finally understand what’s been happening since Seven Hills.”

  “What do you mean?” Araris asked.

  Septimus shook his head and lifted his hand. “There’s no time. I want you to take them to safety.”

  “Your Highness, I can assign a mounted unit to escort them out.”

  “No. It’s got to be you.”

  “Crows, Septimus,” Araris said. “Why?”

  Septimus met his eyes directly, and said quietly, “Because I know you’ll take care of her.”

  Araris’s eyes widened, and his face went pale. He shook his head. “Sep, no. No, it isn’t like that. I would never want that. Not for my lord. Not for my friend.”

  The Princeps face suddenly lit in a smile, and he threw back his head in a belly laugh. “Crows. I know that, Rari, you fool. I know you wouldn’t.”

  Araris ducked his head, frowning. “Still. I shouldn’t. It isn’t right.”

  Septimus thumped a fist down on Araris’s shoulder. “Bah, man. I can’t very well throw stones at anyone who falls in love with her. I did, after all.” He glanced in the direction of the tent he shared with Isana. “She’s something special.”

  “She is,” Araris agreed quietly.

  Septimus’s face sobered. “It’s got to be you.”

  “All right,” Araris said.

  “If something happens to me—”

  “It won’t,” Araris said firmly.

  “We can’t know that,” Septimus said. “No one ever can. It’s got to be you. If something happens to me, I want her to be taken care of.” He glanced back at Araris. “I can’t stand the thought of her and the child being alone. Promise me, Araris.”

  Araris shook his head. “You’re being ridiculous.”

  “Maybe,” Septimus agreed. “I hope so. But promise me.”

  Araris frowned at the Princeps for a moment. Then he jerked his chin in a quick nod. “I’ll watch over her.”

  Septimus clapped his arm gently, his tone warm. “Thank you.”

  The dream froze, locked into that image.

  Fade, beside Isana, stared at the image of Septimus. “I failed him,” he said. Tears rolled down his cheeks, over the burn scars. “I should have stood with him. But when push came to shove . . . all I wanted was to get you away from the battle. To make sure you were safe.” He bowed his head. “I let my heart guide my head. I let it blind me to my duties. Blind me to possible dangers. Blind me to your sister’s injuries. Blind me to what might happen to the baby.”

  He looked up at her, his eyes miserable. “I loved you, Isana. The wife of my best friend, my sword brother. I loved you. And I am ashamed.”

  Isana stared at Septimus’s image for a long moment, though dream-tears blurred her dream-vision. “Fade . . .”

  “I can’t make amends for my mistakes,” Fade said. “The blood won’t ever be washed from my hands. Let me go. There’s nothing left for me here.”

  Isana turned to face Fade and reached out to cup his face between her pale, slender hands. She could feel his anguished guilt, feel the pain, the self-recrimination, the bottomless well of regret.

  “What happened,” she said quietly, “was not of your making. It was horrible. I hate that it happened. But you didn’t cause it to be so.”

  “Isana . . . “ Fade whispered.

  “You’re only human,” Isana said over him. “We make mistakes.”

  “But mine . . .” Araris shook his head. “I had a hand in this war, as well. Had Septimus lived, he would have been the greatest First Lord Alera has ever known. He’d have a strongly gifted heir. A gracious, compassionate wife at his side. And none of this would be happening.”

  “Perhaps,” Isana said gently. “Perhaps not. But you can’t hold the actions of thousands and thousands of other people against yourself. You’ve got to let it go.”

  “I can’t.”

  “You can,” Isana said. “It wasn’t your fault.”

  “Tavi,” Fade said.

  “That isn’t your fault either, Fade.” Isana drew a breath. “It’s mine.”

  Fade blinked at her for a moment. “What?”

  “I did it to him,” Isana said quietly. “When he was still a baby. Whenever I bathed him, I would think about what it would mean if he showed his father’s talents. How it would draw attention to him. How it would mark him as Gaius’s heir. As a target for the power-hungry maniacs of the Realm intent on seizing the throne. At first, I didn’t realize what I was doing to him.” She met his eyes steadily. “But when I did . . . I didn’t stop, Fade. I pushed harder. I stunted his growth so that he would look younger than his age, so that it would seem to be impossible that he was Septimus’s child. And in doing it, I stunted his mind, somehow. I prevented his talents from ever emerging, until the water furies around the Steadholt were so used to it that I hardly needed to think about it at all.

  “Unlike you,” she said, “I knew precisely what I was doing. And so in that, I am as much to blame for this war as you are.”

  “No, Isana,” Fade said.

  “I am” Isana replied quietly. “Which is why I’m staying here. With you. When you go, I will go with you.”

  Fade’s eyes widened. “No. Isana, no, please. Just leave me.”

  She took both her hands in his. “Never. I will not allow you to fade away, Araris. And by crows and thunder, your duty is not complete. You swore yourself to Septimus.” She squeezed his hands, staring hard into his eyes. “He was your friend. You promised him.”

  Araris stared back at her, trembling and silent.

  “I know how badly your soul has been wounded—but you can’t surrender. You can’t abandon your duty now, Araris. You do not have that right. I need you.” She lifted her chin. “Octavian needs you. You will return to duty. Or you will make your treachery true by allowing yourself to die—and taking me with you.”

  He began to weep.

  “Araris,” Isana said in a low, compassionate voice. She touched his chin and lifted it until his eyes met her. Then, very gently, she said, “Choose.”

  Chapter 48

  Amara tried to smile at the little girl and held out her arms to her.

  “Masha,” Rook said quietly. “This is Countess Amara. She’s going to take you out of here.”

  The little girl frowned and clung more tightly to Rook. “But I wanna leave with you this time.”

  Rook blinked her eyes rapidly for a few seconds, then said, “We are leaving this time, baby. I’ll meet you outside.”

  “No,” the little girl said, and clung tighter.

  “But don’t you want to go flying with Amara?”

  The little girl looked up. “Flying?”

  “I’ll meet you on the roof.”

  “And then we leave and get ponies?” Masha asked.

  Rook smiled and nodded. “Yes.”

bsp; Masha beamed at her mother and didn’t object as Rook lifted her to Amara’s back. The little girl wrapped her legs around Amara’s waist and her arms around Amara’s throat. “All right, Masha,” she said, tensing her throat muscles against the child’s grip. “Hold on tight.”

  Rook turned to the great bed and tore off a quilted silk sheet large enough to serve as a pavilion. She hurried to one of the large wardrobes, flicked a corner of the sheet around one of its legs, and tied it with brisk, efficient motions. “Ready.”

  “Your Grace?” Amara asked. “Are you ready?”

  Lady Placida looked up, her face blank and remote with concentration. She knelt on the floor facing the opposite wall, her hands folded calmly into her lap. At Amara’s words, she shifted her stance into something resembling a sprinter’s crouch, and said, “I am.”

  Amara’s heart began to race, and she felt her legs trembling with incipient panic. She looked up at the four gargoyles on their perches, then walked across the room to stand beside Rook against one wall. She focused her eyes on the center of the ceiling, where she would be able to see any of the gargoyles when they began to move. “Very well,” she said quietly. “Begin.”

  Lady Placida focused her defiant eyes on the opposite wall and growled, “Lithia!”

  Nothing happened.

  Lady Placida growled, raising a clenched fist, and cried, “Lithia!”

  And at that, the floor of the chamber heaved and bucked, and the stone formed into the shape of a horse, head and shoulders rising from the ground as it rushed at the opposite wall.

  Simultaneously, Amara called out to Cirrus. Locked in the stone room as they were, she was far from the open air the fury loved, and Cirrus responded to her call sluggishly, weakly. She had expected nothing more—for the moment—and simply drew upon the fury’s native swiftness to quicken her own movements.

  So when the four gargoyles simultaneously exploded into abrupt life, she saw the sudden reaction abruptly slow, as her own senses became distorted through her communion with her fury.

  The gargoyles opened their eyes, revealing glittering green emeralds that glinted with their own faint light. Shaped into the rough form of lions, their heads were a monstrous mix of a man, a lion, and a bear. Sharp horns curled out from the sides of their broad heads, pointing directly forward from their eyes in deadly prongs, and their forefeet bore oversized talons like those of a bird of prey.

  As Kalarus had warned Lady Placida, the gargoyles focused immediately upon the child.

  Amara saw the gargoyle nearest her as it leapt from its perch, drifting down toward her like a falling leaf. She pushed off from the wall, dancing away from its pounce, and felt the floor shudder at the impact, then heard an enormous booming sound from somewhere behind her.

  Masha wailed as her grip on Amara’s neck began to slip. As tightly as the little girl clung, Amara’s speed of reaction had nearly pulled her clear of the child entirely. She seized one of Masha’s arms with one hand, a leg with the other, and had to reverse her momentum as the second gargoyle slammed to the floor across the chamber and flung itself at her.

  She only just evaded it, dived, and fell to the floor rolling as the third earth fury leapt at her and passed through the space her head had occupied an instant before. She came to her feet a beat more slowly than she should have. The child on her back had altered her center of gravity, forcing her to struggle to keep her movements balanced and fluid. She leapt up onto the bed, bounced once to cross it, and ripped down the bed’s canopy, dropping the heavy drapes over the head of the fourth gargoyle as she leapt away from its pursuit.

  But her opponents seemed to be moving more and more quickly, and pure terror rolled through Amara as she realized that Cirrus, enclosed in stone as he was, had begun to falter. She only had seconds.

  Then Lady Placida cried out again, and Amara whipped her head around in time to see the High Lady’s earth fury smash into the outer wall of the tower. Stone shattered and screamed its torment, and the earth fury ripped a hole the size of a legionare’s shield in the hardened siege-stone of the citadel’s outer wall.

  Panic gave way to exaltation as Amara felt Cirrus abruptly strengthen again, and she bounded forward, planted a sandaled foot on the head of one of the lunging gargoyles, and leapt for the opening. She flung herself through it just as Lady Placida seized her heavy chain in one hand, and pulled it from the wall with a single contemptuous jerk, taking a block of stone the size of a man’s head with it.

  Amara fell.

  Masha screamed again as they plummeted, and Amara called desperately to Cirrus. It was a race against gravity. Though the fury could support her and Masha without difficulty, it took precious time to establish a windstream, and the fall from the tower was not a long one.

  Unless, of course, she should fail to arrest their descent, in which case it would be more than long enough.

  The wind suddenly howled around her, eerily like the defiant scream of a warhorse, and the cloudy, nebulous equine shape became visible around her as Cirrus turned the fall into a forward-rushing glide no more than two feet above the ground. Amara altered course, using her momentum to slingshot herself into a vertical climb.

  As she did, the little girl’s scream of terror became one of excitement and exhilaration, which Amara could hardly fault her for feeling. But she also knew that it was a near certainty that Kalarus’s citadel was protected by a miniature legion of wind furies whose only purpose would be to interfere with the flight of unwelcome windcrafters. Cirrus could probably bull through them, at least for the moment, but Amara knew that it was only a matter of time before she would be driven from the air.

  She turned anxious eyes up at the tower, and saw Rook come sliding feet-first out of the hole in the wall. She shot off the edge. For a second, Amara thought she would fall. Instead, the former bloodcrow held a double handful of the silk sheets she’d tied to the wardrobe. Rook turned as she fell and swung toward the wall, absorbing the shock with her feet and legs with the skill of an experienced mountain climber.

  Now that Rook was out of the chamber, Lady Placida was free to deal with the gargoyles without harming her allies. Horrible crashing sounds and billows of dust came from Kalarus’s upper chamber. More alarm bells began to ring. Amara heard screams from within the tower, terrible, terrible sounds of men and women in mortal agony, and she realized with horror that the tower must have held many more gargoyles than the four in the bedchamber. She heard someone blowing a signal horn, the notes crisply precise—the Immortals, she supposed, immediately reacting to the alarm and organizing their efforts.

  Amara shot back up to the chamber, hovering at a distance she hoped was out of the leaping distance of any of the gargoyles. “Lady Placida!”

  Ten feet down the wall from the first hole, the stone exploded outward again, this time creating a much larger opening, and one of the gargoyles flew out with the debris. It fell, thrashing wildly, all the way down to the ground below, where it shattered into shards and pebbles.

  Amara jerked her head back up again just in time to see one of the gargoyles leap to the first opening in the wall, green eyes glinting, and crouch to fling itself at Masha.

  Amara bobbed to one side in an effort to evade the gargoyle’s pounce—but before the fury could attack, an enormous block of stone attached to a heavy chain slammed into its posterior, flinging it out of the tower to fall to the stones and share the fate of its companion.

  Lady Placida appeared in the opening, the chain still attached to her collar. She held it about two feet above the section of stone attached to its end, as if it were a flail. She gave Amara a curt nod, set the heavy stone down, and snapped the chain with all the effort a seamstress might use to snap thread. “Done! Get to the roof!”

  “See you there!” Amara shouted. She soared upward while Lady Placida drew Rook back up into the bedchamber. Amara heard another crash a moment later, presumably the sound of bedchamber’s locked door being smashed down, and she landed on the r
oof of the citadel, eyes searching for the presence of any further gargoyles or guards, but the roof was devoid of them—at least for the moment.

  The tower’s roof was quite plain, its surface broken only by two distinct features. The first was a square opening in the floor in its center, where stairs led down into the tower. Amara heard steel ringing on steel inside the opening.

  Not far from the stairway down was Kalarus’s aviary—a simple dome of steel bars perhaps five feet across and only waist high to Amara. Inside it was a young woman who could not have been more than fifteen or sixteen years old. Like Lady Placida, she wore nothing more than a white muslin underdress, and her dark hair was straight and listless in the heat and humidity atop the tower. There were blankets strewn about on one side of the cage, the subject of the letter she and Rook had found, no doubt.

  The girl crouched in the center of the cage, eyes wide—and Amara was somewhat startled by her resemblance to Gaius Caria, the First Lord’s second, quasi-estranged wife; though this child did not have the sense of bitter petulance to her features that Amara had generally seen in Caria’s. The girl stared at her with a mixed expression of despair, worry, and confusion.

  “Atticus Minora? “ Amara asked quietly.

  “Call me E-Elania,” the girl said. “W-who are you?”

  “Amara ex Cursori,” Amara said, simultaneously holding a finger to her lips, urging the girl to silence. “I’m here to take you from this place.”

  “Thank the furies,” the girl breathed, keeping her voice down. “Lady Placida is inside. I don’t know where.”

  “I know, “ Amara said.

  The clash of steel nearby was suddenly drowned out by an enormous hissing sound, and Amara turned her head to see the head and shoulders of an armored Immortal emerge from the hole in the floor, still facing down the stairs. But before he could emerge fully, there was another chorus of hissing sounds, and what Amara could only describe as white-hot raindrops shot up from the tower’s interior in a cloud that pierced the doomed Immortal soldier wherever they struck his armored body, streaking through him as easily as needles piercing cloth, leaving small, glowing holes in the steel of his armor. The man staggered, but grimly kept his feet, thrusting his blade down at someone below him.